Upcoming Utah Film Center screenings highlight issues of white nationalism, traumatic impacts of child abuse

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Continuing a month of free, public screenings dealing with big issues, two documentary films along with talkback sessions – one on white nationalism and the other about the traumatic impacts of child abuse – will be presented by the Utah Film Center. They are the award-winning White Right: Meeting the Enemy (2017), directed by Deeyah Khan (Oct. 22, 7 p.m., City Library auditorium) and Cracked Up (2019), directed by Michelle Esrick (Oct. 30, 7 p.m., Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center).

The Utah Review has screened both films and details about each program are included below:

Darrell Hammond

WHITE RIGHT: MEETING THE ENEMY

Some 20 months after White Right premiered, Jeff Schoep of Detroit, one of the white neo-Nazi activists interviewed in the film, renounced his cause and now speaks publicly against white nationalist extremists. His Twitter account biography reads: “*Former NSM National Ldr* Peace Advocate * Former Nazi speaking out against extremism *Motivational Speaker* Civil/Human Rights Advocate* Consultant *RT≠E *”

Khan, a Muslim who grew up in Norway in a family that includes her Afghani mother and Pakistani father, decided to meet the activists and ask them about their underlying thinking and philosophy. The 55-minute documentary, which premiered on the ITV network in December 2017, is a thoroughly unfiltered examination of neo-Nazism. From the first moments of her fourth film, Khan, a pop singer-turned-documentarian, strips away all comfort buffers. She calmly interrogates her subjects about their motivations but does not censor the rhetoric.

There are many surprising and shocking moments. As one who has experienced vicious taunts of racism, Khan makes clear that she is not there to sympathize with their sentiments but she also does not believe reciprocating their hatred or being afraid resolves anything. In a previously released documentary, Jihad: A Story of the Others, she interviewed British recruits who described their becoming jihadists as a transcendent emotional decision to fight for the cause of Islamic extremists.

In an interview earlier this year with Sean Illing, Khan says she wanted to plumb the psychological roots of the extremists’ search for purpose and community identity. “Most of these men get so much attention once they do something horrible, or once they say something horrible. Before that, they’re invisible,” she explains. “And I think there is something really powerful in that, and perhaps that says more about us as a society than it does about them. But it ought to give us pause when we shower extremist groups with constant media attention.”

The film brings the viewer back to the events in Charlottesville, Virginia that attracted global attention in the summer of 2017. At times, the extremists hesitate to claim their rhetoric. Viewers will note just how little substantive ideology is ever part of the extremist discussion. As utterly contemptible as their words are, Khan moves her subject and the audience to a different prism that pierces through the rhetoric and reveals complicated and deeply conflicted human beings. The last third of the film encompasses former activists who like Schoep have cut their ties. Indeed, Khan steadily removes their hardline veneer and exposes their vulnerabilities and reluctance that contradict the earnestness of their commitment to the movement.

Khan’s sensitive approach in her films aligns with educational efforts, especially in workshops focused on preventing and countering rhetoric and violent acts of extremism that involve local leaders, particularly in youth and women groups.

The screening will be followed by a panel discussion, including a representative from the Emerald Project, a local nonpartisan, nonprofit organization committed to programming to dispel the misrepresentation of Islam and to confront sentiments arising from Islamophobia.

CRACKED UP

More than 20 years ago, Dr, Charles Whitfield, an Atlanta doctor who has treated many survivors of trauma and people with addiction, wrote in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, that “to heal from trauma, the experiencer has to be able to grieve the associated pain. To grieve, the person must remember the trauma well enough to name it accurately … Thus, remembering is a key to resolving the effects of the trauma. But remembering and grieving a past trauma may be difficult, since there are often roadblocks from others.”

In the 2019 documentary film, Cracked Up, directed by Michelle Esrick, Darrell Hammond, the brilliant comedian who was the longest running cast member of Saturday Night Live and is the show’s current announcer, precisely embodies the long difficult process of healing from trauma he suffered when he was abused as a child. As Dr. Whitfield explains, remembering and grieving can be difficult processes.

Hammond’s 2011 memoir titled, God, If You’re Not Up There…: Tales of Stand-up, Saturday Night Live, and Other Mind-Altering Mayhem, encompassed the feelings within himself as powerless, incapable and incompetent, even as he enjoyed incredible success as a comedian. That memoir, as we see in this documentary, was the platform for his one-man theatrical production The Darrell Hammond Project, which has been performed at venues across the country. He saw numerous psychiatrists who diagnosed him in various ways: manic depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, etc. He cut himself dozens of times, adding scars to those inflicted by his mother during his childhood days.

None of the diagnoses led to any improvements in Hammond’s life, which was entrenched in experiences of harming himself and a sense of self that was described as defective, helpless, deficient and unlovable, which developed in his childhood days more than 50 years ago. After a suicide attempt, it was Dr. Nabil Kotbi who diagnosed him as a victim of trauma.

Esrick weaves through numerous clips of his work on SNL and his recollections of his early work in comedy that anchor the film’s contrapuntal treatment of the intertwined dynamics of his life and career that led to the critical epiphanies discovered with Dr. Kotbi. Hammond was a relative late bloomer in comedy. However, the most intriguing and consequential fact is how Hammond tracked the enormous catalogue of mastered character voices by assigning each one with a color and hue. It was the conspicuous absence of red that facilitated Dr. Kotbi’s most significant diagnosis and sparked Hammond’s memory of the trauma from his boyhood.

Geralyn Dreyfous, co-founder of the Utah Film Center, was one of the executive producers for Cracked Up. The screening will be followed by a discussion with Esrick and hosted by Doug Fabrizio of KUER-FM’s RadioWest program.

For information about all screenings, see the Utah Film Center website.

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